Can border agents search your phone? U.S. court rules they need a valid reason
VANCOUVER - A U.S. court ruled border agents should have "reasonable suspicion" before asking to search a traveller's cellphone or laptop at airports and land crossings.
The recent ruling has Canadians wondering what impact it could have on their travel plans.
"It sets an interesting precedent that says Americans can't go on fishing expeditions through individuals' cellphones and other electronic devices when entering the U.S. unless they have a valid reason," said Len Saunders, a Blaine, Wash.-based immigration lawyer who has many B.C. clients.
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One of them, Vancouverite Danielle Bobrel, says her phone was seized and searched while she was questioned by U.S. immigration at Vancouver International Airport, where she was trying to board a flight to California with her Nexus card.
"They were asking me questions about all aspects of my life and they took my phone as well, and they were going through every conversation between my parents, my friends," said Bobrel. "They didn't give me any specific reason. They just said they have the right to go through and know everything about me."
Local lawyers are hopeful the court ruling will change that.
"It may signal to American officials to lighten up on the searches of cellphones and laptops," said Richard Kurland. But he's also concerned border agents may take liberties with what constitutes a valid reason to search, adding "reasonable suspicion can be virtually everything."
Kurland and Saunders both suggest if Canadian travellers have anything on their phones or laptops they don't want American immigration officials to see, they should leave their electronics at home.
But the new ruling is far from the last word.
The U.S. government will almost certainly appeal, and the case could end up in the Supreme Court.
Saunders hopes the courts hold firm, saying "I don't think officers should be able to just look through anyone's cell phone, to look at people's personal information unless they have a really valid reason."
His client Bobrel endured six hours of questioning by U.S. border officials and only got her phone back after abandoning her trip to California.
"It was so stressful and traumatizing for me, I didn't want to go back to the airport," she said. Bobrel's not counting on the new court ruling having an immediate impact.
She hired a lawyer in the hopes of making her next border crossing easier.